Free the gluten! That is, free gluten from misconceptions about its health risks and benefits.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It helps with the elasticity and chewiness of dough. It is commonly found in bread, bagels, baked goods, pasta, cereals, sauces and salad dressing. It’s also found in malts and food coloring. Foods that are naturally gluten-free include rice, quinoa, potatoes, beans and nuts. Wine and hard liquors are gluten-free but beer is not. About 1 percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine, or an allergy to wheat. Then there are those with a condition recently identified as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). People with NCGS are generally self-diagnosed and suffer from bloating, fatigue, digestive issues, joint pain and brain “fog,” among other symptoms, but do not exhibit any of the intestinal damage that those with celiac experience. Because there are no biomarkers for NCGS it is hard to diagnose, but experts estimate that anywhere between .6 and 6 percent of people suffer from NCGS. Yet a study by NPD, a global research group, estimates that about 30 percent of the adult population is cutting back on gluten. Why? Here are three common misconceptions about gluten that may explain the rise of the gluten-free craze.
1. A Gluten-Free Diet is a Healthier Diet
While there are tangible health benefits, and scientific research, to support cutting back on sodium, sugar, cholesterol and certain types of fats, there is no research that supports cutting back on gluten as a way to reduce health risks, other than for those with celiac disease. According to NPD, 25 percent of those surveyed said that they believed gluten was not nutritious. Furthermore, they found that only 25 percent of those living in a gluten-free home say celiac disease or gluten sensitivity is the main reason. Another recent survey of more than 1,000 Americans by the Consumer Reports National Research Center (CRNCR), found that 63 percent thought that following a gluten-free diet would improve physical or mental health. “People need to know that gluten is not inherently bad. There’s nothing about it that results in poor health or disease,” said Lisa Cimperman, MS, RD, LD, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in an article in the Huffington Post: “Gluten is neither essential nor detrimental to one’s health or quality of diet.” Furthermore, some processed foods labeled as gluten free, such as waffles, breads, cereals and other baked goods often have more fat, sugar, calories and sodium than their gluten-filled counterparts—making them actually unhealthier food choices. A Consumer Reports article says that gluten may actually be good for you. “There’s some evidence that the protein has beneficial effects on triglycerides and may help blood pressure. The fructan starches in wheat also support healthy bacteria in your digestive system, which in turn may reduce inflammation and promote health in other ways.” And Harvard Medical School says that going gluten-free “can set you up for some nutritional deficiencies.”
2. The Wheat We Consume Today Contains More Gluten Than Older Strains
I’m not exactly sure where this hypothesis came from for why case of celiac and NCGS have increased over the years, but I’m pretty sure the theory that wheat breeding led to production of wheat varieties containing higher levels of gluten originated from best-selling books like “Wheat Belly” by cardiologist William Davis
and “Grain Brain” by neurologist David Perlmutter
. While the idea that celiac and NCGS is on the rise is true (one study cites a 4-fold increase in celiac in the last 50 years and another a 5-fold increase), the level of gluten in wheat is actually unchanged over the years. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that gluten levels in various varieties have changed little on average since the 1920s.
3. Eating Gluten Free Will Help You Lose Weight
More than a third of Americans think that going gluten-free will help them slim down, according to the CRNCR. A 2014 article in Consumer Reports about gluten free diets says, “there’s no evidence that [eliminating gluten] is a good weight-loss strategy; in fact, the opposite is often true. In a review of studies on nutrition and celiac disease published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, researchers said that a gluten-free diet seems to increase the risk of overweight or obesity.” Cutting back on gluten free foods such as bagels, breads, pasta and other carbohydrates can help some people lose weight; however, if you replace those foods with the gluten-free versions, it’s more likely you’ll gain weight since many of those gluten-free alternatives are higher in calories and sugar. If you suspect you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, you should consult with your doctor about what foods to eliminate from your diet and how to read food labels to ensure that your diet is strictly gluten-free. Gluten is much more prevalent in our diets than most people realize, and celiac disease is vastly under-diagnosed, and can lead to dozens of serious health issues if left untreated.